"We just hung up our aprons, covered our typewriters, said good bye to our families and went to war"
My name, during the Second World War, was Helen Jean Cameron. I was in ATS with the British Army, Royal Artillery. And, after basic training, I was transferred to searchlight unit and trained for searchlights. We were Home Defences North London. And, because we took over from the men, we had to do... I'll go as far as to say, a better job than the men, because we were women. And, inasmuch, we became the famous 93rd Searchlight Regiment. Because, at that time, we were the only searchlight regiment in the world run by women. So we had to do a good job. And we did.
First of all we just had spotlights, which weren't very powerful. And then about 1942 we had huge searchlights, 12000 candle power and radar attached. There would be at least two people at the back of the equipment with little television screens in front of them, and like a little steering wheel which you could elevate and rotate. And on this little TV was a line and if we trained it on a plane, you'd get a blip along the line. And when everybody got it all lined up, you would shout out, "On target." And the number 5, who was the one that threw the switch, she would throw the switch and the beam would light up on an enemy plane. Two or three other searchlights would do the same thing and there were usually, maybe, three or four searchlights on the one plane and that was ready for the Royal Artillery to try to shoot the enemy plane down.
We prayed for bad weather so that we could get a night's sleep. We didn't get very many of them. In fact, I can remember not even undressing to go to bed for many, many nights. We just used to take our boots off and lie down and hope to get some sleep. After we got the "stand to", we had 15 seconds to get on the equipment and get everything moving, which we did. And the searchlights were not only used for enemy planes either. If allied aircraft or our own aircraft came back over the coast from a raid and their instruments, maybe, were shot up and they weren't quite sure where they were, they had what was called letters and colours of the day and they would flash the letters and colours for the day as they were going along and we knew that they were calling for a homing beacon. We would light the sky up for them and they would fly along the beam to the nearest airfield and we saved a lot of lives that way.
In the middle of the night it would be cold and hungry and we were usually on the equipment on a clear night, probably, from around 8 o'clock in the evening and, perhaps, until 4 o'clock in the morning. And, unless it's raining, we did group marches. I can still remember the blisters. And we went through gas chambers with a respirator on and we had to take it off for a couple of seconds, and through the gas chamber. We had all sorts of shots in case we got sick. And, to stop our arm swelling, they used to make us wash the floor and things like that to keep the arm on the move.
When things quietened down in about late 1943, I volunteered for a dispatch riders course. And so, I went, again, to a place called Kinmell Park in North Wales and did my motorcycle training and came back to the same regiment as a DR. Which means Dispatch Rider.
When Mr. Churchill said, "Let the women come forward," we did. And 640,000 women were in the British Armed Forces during the Second World War. I don't think we even thought about whether we would die or get injured or anything like that, we just hung up our aprons, covered our typewriters, said good-bye to our families and went to war. And we were very, very proud to be a part of it.
As I say, we laughed together, we cried together, we looked after each other and that bond has never left me. There was just something there that... like a bright light that held us all together.